Now that I've written an unpublished book and dozens of mediocre, unread essays in my life, I consider myself quite the authority on writing. Well, not really, but lately I've been thinking a lot about what makes for good reading, and what a writer can do to engage the reader with clear but creative technique. That these thoughts come to my mind after reading Strunk and White's Elements of Style is no coincidence, and I draw several points directly from that venerated tome.
First, the question: What is writing? Writing is communication, a dialogue between two individuals. The writer speaks, the reader listens. As with any conversation, the intent of the message must be clear. The writer who obfuscates the text and loses the reader in flights of verbose fancy has failed his fundamental task of communication. The writer has an idea he wishes to convey. That idea is translated from thought to page by his words, and those words in turn are translated back to thought by the reader. If the vessel for these thoughts, the words themselves, are not suitable (or capable) of carrying the message between writer and reader, then the whole venture is lost at sea. First and foremost, then, is clarity.
That does not dispose of poetry, of course. Rather, this rule gives power to metaphor by grounding the abstract in the concrete. The poetic is powerful because it resonates with the real. If it is instead self-resonating, "art for art's sake," then it is self-pleasing nonsense. The only sort of person who wants to read that is the sort of person who writes it, and they'd rather read their own nonsense than yours.
A couple basic rules from Elements of Style.
- Directly from the mouth of Strunk: "Omit needless words." Language can be seen as a lever, the basic but muscular machine with power belied by simplicity. Don't depend on flowery phrases, esoteric terminology, or other forms of that villain we call "wordiness" to carry the meaning of your sentence. Think simple, write basic, and apply decoration when sure the machinery functions properly.
- Replace the vague with the definite, the flimsy with the firm. This applies to grammar and word choice. The passive voice, while it has its uses, gives the impression the writer is either uninterested in or possibly afraid of his subject when used too freely. Remain in the active voice. Convincing word choice is also imperative. "Good," "bad," "nice," "happy," are decent marketing words but poison for proper writing. Again, you are conveying a message. Choose ambassadors for your thoughts that you trust will convey that message intact to your reader. "John is nice" conveys nothing. Unless your point is to convey nothing (please don't do this), then avoid such anemic terms.
From my own observation:
- Animate! This is the "how" of the basic rule show, don't tell and the intersection of all points above. Compare:
Obviously, I'm not asking anyone to be Shakespeare. Notice, however, the Bard's technique. He conveys a clear message (loss of beauty in age) and does so with familiar words and ideas (war, agriculture) that nevertheless paint a vivid image. The sentence on John evokes nothing, but I can't help but visualize a man's leathery, wrinkled face with "deep trenches" dug by "forty winters." Which of those would you rather read?
God breathed life into Adam. The writer, too, must breathe life into his sentences- but not without purpose, for God did not act without purpose or intent.
Finally, be humble in learning from others. Nobody ever learned to write in a vacuum. Everything you know how to do is learned either indirectly from those authors you read or directly from teachers. It is arrogant to assume you somehow gathered up all this talent by yourself, rather than compiling it from years of studying others. If you didn't read and learn from others, you wouldn't be writing at all. Learn from others, be humble, and be ready to share what you've learned.
And never, ever, listen to the advice "Don't take writing advice." First, it's arrogant. Second, as it is itself a piece of advice, it is self-defeating nonsense. Ignore it.